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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
The politics of happiness

By Mark Easton
BBC News Home Editor

Money is not the key to happiness

Conservative leader David Cameron says there is more to life than making money, arguing that improving people's happiness is a key challenge for politicians.

The science of happiness poses huge questions for politicians.

Governments have succeeded in delivering greater and greater wealth but that has not translated into extra happiness.

Now research is suggesting ways in which societies might try to maximise well-being - ideas which often challenge some of the basic principles of modern life.

Increasingly, politicians from all sides are taking notice of the findings and discussing how they might capture the elusive feel-good factor.

Back in 1999, Tony Blair wrote about achieving "a better quality of life", adding: "Money isn't everything. But in the past governments have seemed to forget this.

We should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts
Conservative leader David Cameron

"Success has been measured by economic growth - GDP - alone.

"Delivering the best possible quality of life for us all means more than concentrating solely on economic growth.

"That is why sustainable development is such an important part of this Government's programme.

"All this depends on devising new ways of assessing how we are doing."

The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron told The Happiness Formula programme: "We should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts.

"When politicians are looking at issues they should be saying to themselves 'how are we going to try and make sure that we don't just make people better off but we make people happier, we make communities more stable, we make society more cohesive'."


The idea that politics should be about creating "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" goes back to the end of the 18th century and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Jeremy Bentham's preserved body is kept at University College London
Jeremy Bentham's body was preserved after his death in 1832

However, no-one could work out how to measure happiness, or how to weigh one person's happiness against how other people feel.

So economics, which is built on objective measurement, took hold instead.

In the past few years figures close to government in Britain have been arguing once again that policies should take account of how happy - or unhappy - they make people.

In 2002, The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit held a "life satisfaction" seminar in Whitehall discussing the implications of a "happiness" policy.

A few month's later, Downing Street published an "analytical paper" which considered how happiness might affect different policies including:

  • A happiness index
  • Teaching people about happiness
  • More support for volunteering
  • "A more leisured work-life balance"
  • Higher taxes for the rich

    The authors were careful to say that the ideas were not government policy, but Tony Blair's policy adviser who helped write the paper, David Halpern, told The Happiness Formula it is inevitable that in future governments will be judged on their success in making people happy.

    "Put it this way, if government doesn't measure it, other people will and already are."

    Already one government department has defined its purpose as improving people's "health and happiness".

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working on a happiness index.

    Furthermore, every local authority in England and Wales has wide-ranging powers to promote well-being.

    The Happiness Formula has been looking at how different politics would be if government tried to make people happy rather than just rich.

    Tax makes you happy

    Research has suggested that one of the key reasons why wealth has not translated into happiness is that we tend to compare ourselves with people who are richer than we are.

    At a certain level, taxes are likely to increase the well-being of the population
    The Prime Minister's adviser David Halpern

    As a result, even though we may be better off ourselves, we still do not get any happier.

    If we want a happier society, so the theory goes, we need to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

    And the way to do that is to redistribute wealth from the rich to the less well-off.

    So some close to government are now arguing that, believe it or not, taxes make us happy.

    "We tend to think of taxes as bad," said the PM's adviser David Halpern.

    "I know it's difficult for us to believe as we take out our chequebook at the end of the year, but it looks like, at least at a certain level, taxes are likely to increase the well-being of the population."

    The leading economist Professor Richard Layard of the LSE explains why: "We should try and discourage people from comparing themselves with other people ... and I think the tax system can help us in that way."

    Do not panic though - both Mr Halpern and Professor Layard reckon the current tax rates are about right for maximising happiness.

    Banning advertising

    The science of happiness suggests advertising is a major cause of unhappiness because it makes people feel less well-off.

    Family watching television
    Is advertising damaging our sense of well-being?

    According to Professor Layard some advertising should be banned.

    "I don't see that we need to allow pictorial advertising which conveys very little information because it makes people feel poorer."

    In the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where government makes policy on the basis of Gross National Happiness, most street advertising is banned - particularly when aimed at children.

    In the UK, the National Consumer Council is campaigning to ban advertising to children below the age of 10.

    "We already regulate alcohol to children, we should also regulate and I think ban advertising of junk food to children," said Ed Mayo, Chief Executive of the NCC.

    "There is no case, in terms of health or wellbeing of children for advertising like this."

    In fact, says Mr Mayo, the council's own research suggests advertising to children can make them more unhappy.

    "Children that are more brand aware, are more consumerist, came across as less satisfied in other parts of their lives - were unhappier".

    Commuting less

    According to scientists commuting is really bad news for happiness.

    Commuting eats at your happiness

    Not only is the journey to and from work often a pretty miserable experience in itself, it has knock-on effects which limit the happiness of the rest of our lives.

    It appears that our happiness is closely linked to what researchers call our "social capital" - the sum of all our connections and trust in other people, our personal family ties, our friends, and our acquaintances.

    Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University has calculated that every 10 minutes of commuting cuts all forms of social involvement by 10% - so 10% fewer family dinners, local club meetings, and other involvement.

    Once politicians encouraged us to "get on our bikes" and look for work.

    But the science of happiness suggests we might be better off staying close to our families and friends.

    There are implications for whether government should support communities where traditional industries have failed.

    Questions, too, for business and individuals as to whether they should move to new areas.

    It is arguable that planners and politicians should try to discourage people from living far from where they work.

    Encourage marriage

    The science of happiness suggests marriage is so good for your well-being that it adds an average seven years to the life of a man and something like four for a woman.

    To maximise happiness, it is argued, government should certainly do nothing to discourage marriage; arguably it should promote it.

    However, in Britain, any financial incentives to get married have been taken away.

    Politicians seem reluctant to make moral judgments about domestic relationships.

    "The married tend to be happier," said Mr Halpern.

    "In my view, it's not so much necessarily for government to say you therefore should be married, but it's perfectly reasonable [for the government] to say ... if you do these you'll probably be happy, if you do these you'll probably be miserable, you decide."

    Rethinking the health service

    Research also suggests there is a powerful link between happiness and health.

    Being happy may benefit your health more than exercise

    It is suggested that making people happy could do more for the health of the nation than all the exercise, diet and anti-smoking campaigns rolled into one.

    And that argues for a big re-think in the priorities of the NHS.

    Policies aimed at making people happier - or at least less unhappy - should be encouraged in an effort to prevent people becoming ill in the first place.

    One idea is to massively increase access to a relatively new form of psychotherapy called CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to help people avoid dwelling on negative thoughts and find ways to overcome them.

    Lord Layard, author of Happiness: lessons from a new science, believes the science is so conclusive the government should immediately employ another 10,000 therapists.

    "We're talking about for a course of CBT a thousand, 1500 with something that can change somebody's life.

    "It really is important that we should try and have a major nationally organised training programme for more therapists."

    Making people happy

    But just how far should a government go?

    In Bhutan they have banned a whole series of TV channels such as wrestling and MTV. The country has even banned plastic bags.

    One reason Bhutan has been able to take such dramatic steps is that it is run by an absolute monarchy.

    In the West, if politicians, acting in the name of happiness, were to impose bans and restrictions on people's freedom, governments would be more likely to encounter resistance.

    Some argue that the logic of happiness research would be the ultimate in nanny states - an argument the Prime Minister's strategy adviser is keen to contradict.

    "I'm sure lots of ministers would be nervous about that.

    "But it turns out that some of the key determinates of what make us happy, are things over which we as individuals have relatively little control about prevalent levels of community safety, they're safe when they go out.

    "How do other people in general behave, about the way in which our whole economy may be locked into a given path.

    "These are things that as individuals we can't determine, but we can determine as a society together, and that basically means government is in the game."

    Mark Easton presents The Happiness Formula series which is broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 1900BST.

    Make people happier says Cameron
    22 May 06 |  UK Politics


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